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German ICUs Are Struggling to Keep Up with Corona

  • November 12, 2020

It usually takes five years to train highly specialized intensive care nurses. Back in the summer, Heyo Kroemer, the chairman of the board at Charité University Hospital, reported that many hospitals had increased their intensive care capacities considerably after the first wave of the coronavirus. “But I doubt there’s enough nursing staff to handle those capacities if we have to use them,” he says.

The hospitals are trying to compensate. “We have reduced the number of surgical interventions by 20 percent and will reduce them even further,” says Charité board member Frei. He says that if operating theaters were closed, it would be possible to deploy freed-up surgical and anesthesia nurses in intensive care units, at least to a limited extent.

However, fewer routine operations also means lower revenues for the hospitals. This has prompted many to appeal to German Health Minister Jens Spahn to restart a program from last spring – which expired on Oct. 1 – that saw the federal government paying subsidies to hospitals to keep beds free for coronavirus patients.

Medical experts, though, warn that there are too many operations and treatments that really can’t be postponed. It might be possible to delay a hip replacement for a few weeks or months, but heart attacks, strokes and severe forms of cancer usually have to be treated immediately.

Hospitals also often need more staff for corona patients than for routine cases. “With heart attacks, two or three patients can be relatively well cared for by one nurse,” Matthias Kochanek, the head of internal intensive care medicine at the Cologne University Hospital, said recently. But with COVID-19 patients, “you almost need one-to-one care.”

In the state of Saxony, hospitals are now having to rely on medical students just to ensure that COVID-19 patients get any treatment at all. They thought they had the situation well under control for a long time, says Michael Albrecht, the medical director at University Hospital Dresden. But last week, the hospital experienced a flood of patients. For the first time, the hospital’s intensive care units were no longer sufficient. At the same time, an increasing number of doctors and nurses are contracting the infection. Albrecht says that the numbers of infections in the nursing sector are “extremely high” in some areas.

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